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Learning about Mental Illness from Ruth

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The Four Questions and Living with Mental Illness

Check out my piece in the launch of the new site:

exploringjudaism.org

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My Experience of Cutting as a Form of Self-Harm

The act of cutting oneself, on purpose (or a more comfortable label for it, self-harm) can be a very scary thing to those who do not know about it.

I started cutting myself, small cuts, during my sophomore year in college, which wouldn’t necessarily hurt when I did it, but I just needed to see the bit of blood. I had never heard of anyone doing this to him/herself, but it came to me and what began at the age of 19 has continued, on and off since then. I am currently 47 years old.

In the beginning, I honestly don’t remember much of what brought me to do it. It wasn’t for attention because I made sure it was covered during the colder weather and would cut my thighs in the warmer weather when I’d wear shorts. It was for me, and, perhaps, my therapist at the time. My first year in therapy was my sophomore year in college following a summer as a camp counselor where I experienced a lot of anxiety and had suicidal thoughts. I had no idea why it was all happening. After camp, I returned to school in NYC, and my school’s health services referred me to my therapist, who was wonderful.

I don’t remember talking a lot during that first year, but she began the work of teaching me about my feelings. You see, there are more feelings than happy, mad and sad, and that was all I knew. I began cutting myself, I believe, because my entire life prior, was missing a big piece of being human. It’s all about feelings, many feelings, good and bad, and I had no idea. Those 7 years of therapy became the base of the next step in my therapeutic work as I moved to Boston and took a little break from therapy but then started up again. I saw this therapist on and off for about 20 years. I continued to cut myself, at times, mostly when I was angry or felt misunderstood by someone, including my therapist.

I have learned, through a lot of hard work with my current therapist in CT (moved here in 2011), more about feelings but that my cutting was an “easier” way to cope with my anger about, well, anything. I never want to feel angry at someone as it makes me feel like a bad person. My therapist always reminds me that if I never felt anger, that would be a problem. When she says, ” welcome to the human race,” that can help me feel a bit more at ease about any of my feelings.

It’s only been a few weeks, but I am now able to feel good while also feeling anxious or disappointed or angry. My life prior to this was feeling one at a time and if more showed up at one time, I’d become completely overwhelmed, sometimes have panic attacks and sometimes cut myself for relief.

For me, cutting is more than a habit at this point. It is an addiction. It is not something I want to do, in terms of hurting myself on purpose and then dealing with the emotional consequences as well as the scars that are on my body. It is up to me, though, to stop. No one can make me stop or stop it for me and my therapist reminds me of that often. Even though I am sometimes able to use my healthy coping skills to ward off the thoughts of doing it, I am not always successful. It’s hard to break away from it after so many years. Yet, as the years have gone by, my awareness of the cause of the action has increased. Awareness is key to stopping but it is a long process. I do want to stop but I can get caught up in it.

Having bipolar disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder doesn’t help much. I have cut myself when depressed and when hypomanic. The OCD can play a role if I feel the obsession with it start, then the compulsion to do it to feel relief. But, at this point, I often don’t feel relief, as I have in the past, which is a sign of good work in therapy, but there’s a lot more to go.

I do not want cutting or self-harm to be a secret, just as I do not want someone with any mental illness to stay quiet. Reaching out, voicing your truth can be freeing and help to educate those who do not understand what those of us with mental illness combat daily. Secrets never lead to anything positive. Let people in, those you trust the most. Just having one person who supports you and cares about you, no matter what, can make all the difference in the world as you navigate your daily life with all symptoms of your mental illness. For me, I wrote this today to free myself of this secret. While some know about it, most of the people in my life don’t or believe I stopped years ago. I needed to write about my cutting now because it’s current and has been an off and on behavior for the past several years. It’s part of me, and while unfortunate, it’s my challenge to face head on.